Irony in retreat on attack on crop insurance program

It was a strange week in Washington, one that left political observers wondering if congressional leaders are really that smart or just plain lucky.

After months of threats and political posturing by presidential candidates who say they want to lead a government they keep trying to shut down, House and Senate leaders announced a budget compromise funding the government for two more years.

The leadership – House Speaker John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid – reached an agreement with the White House to increase spending by $80 billion, extend the debt ceiling to March 2017 and cut the Social Security disability program.

As part of the offsets needed for removing the sequester from defense and domestic programs, the leaders made $3 billion in cuts to the federal crop insurance program – reducing the cap on the rate of return for insurance companies administering the policies from 14.5 to 8.9 percent and requiring more frequent reviews of the standard reinsurance agreement.

Within hours of the announcement of the budget deal, commodity organizations and the leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees were rallying to protect the crop insurance program and threatening to vote against the budget deal.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the agreement amounted to reopening the farm bill. “As chairman of the House Ag Committee, I got to protect the integrity of the farm bill. The overall impact is to flush insurance companies out of business, which I think is the president’s intent.”

Others argued agriculture had already made significant contributions to reducing the deficit after Congress took a hatchet to farm programs in the Agricultural Act of 2014.

“We produced a fiscally responsible and bipartisan farm bill in 2014 that saved $23 billion,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and House Agriculture Committee ranking member. We've done our part.”

By mid-week, the leadership backpedaled and promised to reverse the crop insurance cuts in the upcoming omnibus spending bill that could be passed as early as Dec.1.

When it came time to vote, 79 Republicans joined the Democratic members of the House to pass the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure later passed the Senate.

So did congressional leaders reach out and touch the crop insurance program because it made a convenient target or because they intended to use it as a bargaining chip to garner more commitments to help swing what they expected might be a close vote.

Are they that smart or just lucky?

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